Last fall, my wife’s bike was stolen. Don’t be too sympathetic. The bike was a hand-me-down from my dad that wasn’t really the right frame size for her.
Her current job is a 10-block commute, so she walks to work and rides the bike for errands and exercise. The bike was locked with a cable lock that, to the thief, was about as effective as a cooked piece of spaghetti.
So she went shopping for a new bike, and I helped out by pestering her with obnoxious questions from the family accounting department: How much will the new bike cost? How much should we expect to spend on maintenance? Will it just get stolen again, sticking us with an unexpected expense?
Then I calmed down and realized, wait a minute: bike maintenance and theft are both part of the total cost of bike ownership.
If we can figure out the expected cost of buying, maintaining, and replacing a bike, we can build a spreadsheet (one of my favorite leisure activities) and turn a series of unexpected expenses into a monthly budget item.
Let’s look at theft and maintenance separately.
My wife bought a new (used) bike that fits her nicely, and with it a heavy-duty U-lock that cannot be picked with a ballpoint pen. Meanwhile, I researched bike theft statistics.
What I learned was equal parts obvious and surprising. The best international data on bike theft comes from the International Crime Victims Survey. The most recent data is, unfortunately, from 2005, but there’s no reason to believe that bike theft is way up or down in most places.
The data shows that where bicycling is ubiquitous, so is bike theft. The highest rate of theft is in Amsterdam, where 12% of people are victims every year. New York City actually has a relatively low rate, at 3%.
These statistics are slightly misleading, since they look at the proportion of the entire population victimized by bike theft, rather than the proportion of bike owners. People who don’t ride bikes are, duh, rarely victims of bike theft.
Seattle isn’t covered by the survey, and I couldn’t find local statistics. But cycling is popular here, and so is bike theft, so I made an educated guess that Seattle bike owners have a 6% change of having their bike stolen per year.
What can my wife do to turn the odds in her favor? It’s pretty straightforward: use a U-lock, lock the bike properly, and park in a place with lots of foot traffic (a thief can saw through a U-lock in ten minutes).
In addition, students at MIT discovered that crappy-looking bikes are much less likely to be stolen. You can actually attend a bike theft deterrence workshop at MIT where experienced riders will help you splatter-paint your bike so it looks like a junker.
Other tactics in this strategy include wrapping parts of your frame with duct tape and scratching out the make of the bike.
None of these tactics will prevent theft outright, just reduce the risk. Bike theft still has to be factored into the cost of ownership.
One of my earliest memories of college is the time Dave fixed my bike. I’d shipped my bike to school in a box and clumsily assembled it myself, and of course it rode all wonky.
My hallmates said Dave was the guy to call. He came by with a pouch of tools, flipped my bike upside-down, did some ratcheting, and it was fixed. Magic. I bought him some late-night pizza.
Twenty years later, I still have no idea how to fix or maintain a bike, or whether our bike maintenance costs over the last few years are anything close to typical, or how much money you can save by learning to maintain your own bike.
First I spoke to Tito at Bicycle Habitat, one of the largest cycle shops in New York City. “For a commuter that’s using their bike a fair amount, an annual tuneup, that’s $130,” said Tito. “All the parts you need are extra. So that’s just the labor cost.”
I asked Tito which parts need to be replaced most frequently. Brake pads and chains, he said. “You want to replace your chain every couple of months, probably.”
That sounded awfully frequent, so I called up Ellen Aagaard, a Seattle bicycle instructor and serious recreational cyclist (she and her daughter recently took an 1800-mile bike trip on a tandem). “There are nine bikes in the garage, six in active use,” she said.
Aagaard is the bike maintenance guru for her household, and her biggest task is maintaining her husband’s bike. He’s a year-round bike commuter. In Seattle, that means lots of rain and occasional snow.
“He puts 90-100 miles on his bike every week, 5,000 per year,” said Aagaard, who has a weekly routine to keep his bike in shape and recommends the same to every cyclist.
“Learn how to check for wear and tear on the drivetrain. Learn how to adjust the drivetrain. Learn how to replace brake pads. Learn how to check the rims and spokes. Keep your bike clean and lubed. Somebody less picky than me could do that in half an hour.”
Does this actually save money compared to Tito’s annual tuneup? Absolutely, said Aagaard. “That’s a $60 tuneup from a shop. Rightly so, because they’re charging a shop rate of $60 an hour.” And that’s every week.
We walked through a host of replacement parts, some of which I had to look up later on Wikipedia, but in general, even considering her husband’s serious commute, no parts need replacing more than once a year.
Using the theft data and the replacement part schedule and costs from Tito and Aagaard, I put together a spreadsheet that calculates the expected monthly cost of ownership. You can download the spreadsheet and play with it yourself in Google Docs or Excel.
For my wife’s cycling needs, I came up with a monthly cost of about $25. Aagaard estimated $56 for her husband’s bike, which includes the cost of additional accessories and winter clothing and more frequent part replacements.
How does this compare to owning a car?
Riding a bike is literally an order of magnitude cheaper. When I looked into the cost of car ownership last year, I found that even a modest used car (a 2005 Nissan Sentra) costs $411 a month in depreciation, gas, insurance, maintenance, and repair.
I don’t own a bike, but after seeing how cheap it is, I’m thinking about buying one. And I’m definitely going to learn how to maintain and repair my wife’s bike. It’s about time I learn to fix something other than spreadsheets.
“I really like being alone in the garage, listening to music, and working on the bikes,” said Aagaard. “It’s kind of a nice break for us at-home moms.” Dads, too, I’ll wager.
Matthew Amster-Burton is a personal finance columnist at Mint.com. Find him on Twitter @Mint_Mamster.